Danish Pragmatic Euroskepticism: From Maastricht to the June Referendum

By Simone Gagliardo

The referendum held in Denmark on June 1st, 2022 marks a clear watershed in the country’s approach to European integration for the last three decades. On referendum day, Danes have decided to eliminate the opt-out to the Union’s defense policy that they had demanded in 1993 after rejecting the Maastricht Treaty. The 2022 referendum signals significant shifts both at the European and national level: firstly, it is in line with the Scandinavian policy turn to stronger military coordination – in the light of Sweden and Finland’s application to NATO membership – and comes at a time when EU unity in security matters is needed more than ever. Secondly, it prompts a rethinking of the Danish approach to the European project since it halts a 30-years-old political trend of opposing further defense integration.

Copenhagen’s position toward Brussels has always been described as “soft” or “pragmatic” Euroscepticism. Ever since joining the European Communities in the first enlargement round (1973), the country has been cautious about participating in the EU’s reforms, opposing the ones presenting a too federalizing project – such as the 1986 Single European Act – and supporting those that clearly benefited their national economic interests – e.g., the European Monetary System.

However, the Maastricht Treaty marked a watershed in the country’s relations with – and perception of – the EU. In the early 90s, the new global political landscape generated a reorientation of both the Danish political parties and the general public opinion. The recurrent idea that the EU was an “elitist project” became apparent in the votes to ratify the 1992 Maastricht Treaty: while the outstanding majority of the Folketing (Danish parliament) approved it, in the subsequent referendum held on June 2nd Danes rejected it with a very slight majority (50.72%). The unexpected result seemed to signal the revival of public interest in the EU, the disappearance of the “permissive consensus” and its replacement by a new “constraining dissensus” accompanied by the rise of Eurosceptic parties across the continent.

In practical terms, the 1992 referendum forced the Folketing to negotiate four opt-outs for Denmark concerning four policies of the Maastricht Treaty: the introduction of a single European currency, the creation of European citizenship, the cooperation in the fields of Justice and Home Affairs (JHA), and the participation in a Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). These reservations were approved by a second referendum in May 1993 and have since remained in place, until very recently. Two referenda in 2000 and 2015 tried to get rid of the opt-outs – the first focusing on the single currency and the second on JHA – but both failed, signaling the Danes’ fear of losing national sovereignty on economic and immigration matters.

However, exactly 30 years after Denmark’s “nej” to full European integration, the country has decided to opt-in to the CSDP and will now be able to participate in EU military missions. The outstanding success of the June referendum comes as a direct consequence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent formation of a new political will in favor of closer security coordination among the Member States. This moment of historic decisions in the EU began with the “Zeitenwende” speech delivered by German PM Scholz on February 27th. On that occasion, the Chancellor announced a historic shift in the country’s foreign and defense policy, committing to invest more than 2% of GDP in defense – as demanded by the NATO spending guidelines – and setting up a special €100-billion fund to improve its military capacity. In March, the Danish Folketing approved a gradual spending increase in defense in order to reach the 2% target by 2033 and set aside around €1 billion to strengthen its armaments and protection systems. Similarly, on May 18th, Sweden and Finland formally applied for NATO membership, a move that would dramatically enhance the alliance’s eastern flank and its collective defenses in Scandinavia.

Furthermore, the understanding that the regional security situation has changed is not only visible in the choices of the EU political leaders but is also reflected at the level of public opinion. As the latest Eurobarometer shows, 81% of European citizens appear in favor of a common defense policy, a share not recorded in decades. Nevertheless, Danes still figure among the most skeptical peoples together with Sweden and Austria – historically neutral countries – with 26% of respondents opposing CSDP, well above the EU average.Therefore, has the June referendum actually reversed decades of pragmatic Euroscepticism in Denmark? Not necessarily. On the contrary, it seems to confirm that Copenhagen is willing to deepen supranational integration only when it sees clear economic and security benefits. Danes remain firm defenders of their national sovereignty, and the opposition to the introduction of qualified majority voting in the EU foreign policy voting procedure proves that they hold their veto power very dear. What is clear, however, is that the June vote halts a long trend of failed pro-European referenda in Denmark, it signals a stronger demand for an EU security agenda, and nothing prevents one from believing that it could mark the rise of a new “pragmatic pro-Europeanism” among the Danish people in the years to come.

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